UCLA Neuroscientists Pinpoint New Function for Mirror Neurons; Specialized Brain Cells Predict Intentions as Well as Define Actions

The same part of the brain activates whether performing or observing an action. Activity increases (red in brain model) when the context of an observed action reveals intention.

The road to interpreting intentions is paved with mirror neurons.

A study by UCLA neuroscientists featuring functional magnetic resonance imaging and a well-stocked tea service suggests for the first time that mirror neurons help people understand the intentions of others — a key component to social interaction.

Reporting Feb. 22 in the online edition of PLoS Biology, the UCLA team found that pre‑motor mirror neuron areas of the brain — areas active during the execution and the observation of an action — ascribe intentions to actions when presented within a context. Previously, these neurons were thought to be involved only in action recognition.

In addition to expanding knowledge of how the brain functions, the findings support a growing body of evidence that imitation-based forms of treatments in patients with autism and similar disorders may help stimulate the function of these neurons, helping these patients improve their ability to understand the intentions of others and empathize with their thoughts and feelings.

"Understanding the intentions of others while watching their action is a fundamental building block of social behavior," said principal investigator Dr. Marco Iacoboni, an associate professor in-residence of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute's Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Center and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "Our findings show for the first time that intentions behind actions of others can be recognized by the motor system using a mirror mechanism in the brain. The same area of the brain responsible for understanding behavior can predict behavior as well."

Twenty-three research subjects underwent functional MRI while alternately viewing three stimuli presented in the form of short videos: 1) a hand grasping a cup without context; 2) a tea service stocked with food and drink before use and after use, or context only; and 3) the grasping of a tea cup within each of the two contexts, signaling intent either to drink or to clean.

Actions embedded in context, compared with the other two conditions, increased blood flow in the posterior part of the brain's inferior frontal gyrus, known to be important for grasping control, and in the adjacent sector of the ventral premotor cortex, where hand actions are represented. Increased blood flow is an indicator of increased neural activity.

The research was supported by the Brain Mapping Medical Research Organization, Brain Mapping Support Foundation, Pierson-Lovelace Foundation, The Ahmanson Foundation, Tamkin Foundation, Jennifer Jones-Simon Foundation, Capital Group Companies Charitable Foundation, Robson Family, William M. and Linda R. Dietel Philanthropic Fund at the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation, Northstar Fund, and grants from the National Center for Research Resources, National Science Foundation and National Institute of Mental Health.

Iacoboni also is affiliated with the UCLA Brain Research Institute and the UCLA Center for Culture, Brain and Development. Other members of the research team included Istvan Molnar‑Szakacs and John C. Mazziotta of UCLA, and Vittorio Gallese, Giovanni Buccino and Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma, Italy.

The UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute is an interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including the genetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of normal behavior, and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders. In addition to conducting fundamental research, the institute faculty seeks to develop effective treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders, improve access to mental-health services, and shape national health policy regarding neuropsychiatric disorders.

Online resources:

·        UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute: http://www.npi.ucla.edu/.

·        David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA: http://www.dgsom.healthsciences.ucla.edu.

·        UCLA Brain Research Institute: http://www.bri.ucla.edu/.

·        UCLA Center for Culture, Brain and Development: http://www.cbd.ucla.edu/.

·        University of Parma, Italy: http://www.unipr.it/.

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